Ervin peddles SmartBike program
Councilwoman proposes public bicycle rental initiative for downcounty transit centers
With the August launch of a public bicycle rental program in Washington, D.C., some county officials are considering implementing the same program in busy downtown areas in Montgomery County.
SmartBike is a self-service bike-sharing program that until August was only in Europe. Bike stations are strategically placed near major transit centers and Metro stations, where users with a pre-paid subscription can use a bike for several hours and return it to any designated bike station.
With 120 bikes in 10 stations and between 130 and 150 trips taken daily, the D.C. program has been highly successful, said Jim Sebastian, a senior transportation planner with the District's Department of Transportation.
Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring has suggested forming a similar program by October 2009 in the downtowns of high-density area such as Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Wheaton and Bethesda.
It would "get people out of their cars and onto bikes," Ervin said, adding SmartBike would promote exercise, increase transit options for county residents, alleviate road congestion and improve air quality.
Robert Patten, a senior transportation planner for Toole Design Group, a Washington, D.C.-area consulting firm for bike and pedestrian planning, said having a bike dramatically increases people's mobility.
The average pedestrian is willing to walk a quarter to a half-mile after getting off a Metro rail, Patten said. But bicyclists are more likely to ride one or two miles.
"Your sphere of access is just hugely expanded," Patten said.
However, not everyone agrees Montgomery County is ready for such a program.
Gail Tait-Nouri, a senior planner for the county's Department of Transportation who is responsible for bikeway planning and implementation in Montgomery County, said she's concerned about how to actually put the program in place.
The on-demand program requires expensive technology so bikers could take or return a bike at almost any hour of the day, seven days a week, she said. Someone has to pay to keep the bikes maintained while someone else would have to oversee everything.
Short of creating a new SmartBike county office, Tait-Nouri said she's not sure how it would fit into existing county programs. She said she'd rather wait to see how the District's program turns out rather than start planning a pilot program.
"We struggle as a county trying to do large programs, where we don't have a central office to run something," she said.
And Eric Gilliland, the executive director of the bicycle advocacy group Washington Area Bicyclists Association, said Montgomery County isn't outfitted to have several hundred more bicyclists on the road. The county lacks bike lanes and safe and friendly streets for bicyclists, he said.
"The potential [for SmartBike] to succeed in Montgomery County is there, but I think the infrastructure needs to really catch up," Gilliland said.
Gilliland said if the program was implemented, he hopes it would encourage the county to invest in bicycle education and safety.
While Ervin said details haven't been worked out, she wanted the county's program to connect with the District's so people could hop on a bike in D.C. and drop it off in Silver Spring.
Ervin said SmartBike would be cost-neutral because members would pay an annual subscription fee around $40. The county would most likely contract the program, she said. D.C.'s SmartBike program is run by Clear Channel Outdoor, which also has similar programs in France and Spain.
Residents at the Wheaton Metro station, one of the likely spots for a SmartBike station, weren't sure whether they'd use the program.
Caliyta Beltran, who rides the Metro between Dupont and Glenmont daily, said her commute is too far for the average person to bike.
And Rodney Simoes, a Wheaton resident who rarely uses his car, said he would be willing to pay up to $50 to use a bike from Metro stations.
But residents who have used the system say they're fans of it.
David Alexander, a D.C. resident who is an avid biker and member on the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council, said he loves the program even though it's catered more toward casual bikers who want to use a bike occasionally.
Alexander said bringing SmartBike to the United States is a sign of the country's transition to become more energy independent.
"I think we've finally seen the light," he said.